Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Welcome to Shelbyville: Loving, Fearing Thy Neighbors

• May 22, 2011 • 4:00 AM

In the documentary film “Welcome to Shelbyville,” a small Tennessee town deals with an influx of residents from Somalia.

In news headlines and broadcast bulletins, the word “Somali” is inevitably followed by a dread-inducing plural noun: “pirates” or “warlords” or “terrorists.” So it’s no surprise that natives of the war-ravaged East African country of Somalia are viewed with fear and suspicion by many, if not most, Americans.

When significant numbers of Somali refugees moved to Shelbyville, Tenn., (population 16,000) to work at the nearby Tyson Foods processing plant, the town’s residents reacted with deep suspicion. “We don’t know what diseases they have,” a former mayor frets in the opening minutes of the new documentary film Welcome to Shelbyville. Intensifying his fear is the fact the newcomers are Muslims, which in his view means: “They want to kill us.”

That lack of political correctness makes Shelbyville an ideal setting for a film about immigration and assimilation. When a feisty black resident named Beverly Hewitt visits the home of a Somali immigrant family, she minces no words, informing them, “Most folks think you’re plum mean,” and asking, “You’re not terrorists, right?” In Shelbyville, unspoken fears get spoken and sometimes even assuaged.

Kim Snyder’s documentary, which premieres on PBS May 24 as part of the Independent Lens series, provides a mosaic-like portrait of a town in transition. The film begins just before the election of Barack Obama, which excites some residents and worries others. But their immediate concern is the Somali families who have recently arrived, unannounced. Legal residents who came to the U.S. as part of a refugee-resettlement program, they found temporary homes in Nashville before migrating to this rural area in search of blue-collar jobs.

“I always imagined America as a place where I could work, find a better education and live peacefully,” says Somali Hawo Siyard, sounding strikingly similar to the immigrants who came before her. One longtime local who can sympathize is Miguel Gonzalez, a Mexican native (and American citizen) who moved to the area years earlier to work in an auto plant. His family wasn’t welcomed with open arms, either.

Gonzalez and Hewitt are both part of a grassroots organization called Welcoming America that works with communities to foster better relations between locals and their foreign-born neighbors. The film chronicles attempts to begin and sustain a dialogue between newcomers and old-timers. This effort involves occasional field trips: Shelbyville calls itself the “Walking Horse Capital of the World,” and one amusingly incongruous image finds colorfully dressed, headscarf-wearing Somali women taking in their first horse show.

One problem, at least as the Somalis perceive it, is the local newspaper; they view its coverage as slanted against them, emphasizing the negative. In a decidedly uncomfortable scene, reporter Brian Mosely — internal fight-or-flight system fully engaged, by the look of his awkward body language — visits a Somali home to explain his role and better understand their viewpoint. We later learn his coverage of the controversy has won awards.

“This is a lot of change for a small town to grapple with,” Snyder says. “I can understand why it’s tough. They have no context for what’s happening. There isn’t anybody going to these places and saying, ‘Here’s a little background about these people who are coming.’ Hopefully the film will help in this regard. It’s being shown in a lot of communities that mirror the demographics of Shelbyville.”

The hourlong film spends a lot of time with the town’s religious leaders, who are trying to help congregants reconcile their faith (which instructs them to love their new neighbors) with their fears. The most enthusiastic group is the Baptists, which seems odd until you realize they view these newcomers as potential converts. “The mission field has been brought to us!” one enthusiastic believer declares.

Watch the full episode. See more Independent Lens.

“There are a lot of perspectives in this little town,” Snyder notes. “This [demographic shift] entails some loss for most parties, but also potential opportunities. How you define those losses and opportunities are different for each group.” That understanding is shared by the local sheriff, who seems bemused as he points out that his tiny town has become “one of the most culturally diverse places in America.” Try to imagine one of his Civil Rights-era predecessors saying the same, and you realize we really have made some progress.

“I think it is a hopeful film,” Snyder says. “I’m even more hopeful after seeing how it’s being used. Some people in Corvallis, Ore., wrote me after the local mosque was bombed and asked if they could show the film there. There have been so many reactions like that, where it’s been shown in places where there is tension [between locals and newcomers], or where they simply say, ‘This is our story.'”

And that reaction isn’t exclusive to the United States. Snyder has shown the film to receptive audiences in European cities grappling with immigration. And as part of a State Department program designed to expose people around the world to American ideals and culture, she brought the documentary to Nigeria last August.

“The first time I saw it with an audience was in Kano, a majority-Muslim city in northern Nigeria,” she said. “People were so appreciative of the film. Christian-Muslim killings had taken place in a neighboring town two weeks prior. From their perspective, the fact the people of Shelbyville weren’t turning to violence meant a lot. They commented, ‘Look what this small town was able to do!'”

Whether you’re in urban Nigeria or rural Tennessee (which was Klan country only a half-century ago), it’s easy to caricature newly arrived immigrants. But it’s also easy to stereotype longtime locals who fear for the cohesion of their communities. Welcome to Shelbyville avoids falling into either trap, portraying all its characters with sensitivity and empathy. “I hear they’re very aggressive,” one local man says of the Somalis. “But maybe a year ago, they were fighting for food. They had to be aggressive.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.